Sunday, January 10, 2016

Top Ten Bites of 2015

I wasn't entirely sure that I would bother this year. Beyond the obvious that I've only posted seven times (!!!) since the 2014 iteration of this list, I've also struggled to come to a clear resolution about what I want to include. Not necessarily because, in hindsight, nothing seems all that noteworthy, but rather because as someone who occupies space on the periphery of the food industry, I feel as though I ought to be waxing poetic about uni squid ink housemade pasta with fermented chilies, and seared foie gras lobes with pickled cherries and saba rather than things like bread and butter, and oatmeal.

While there are certainly a handful of those highfalutin dishes that stand out to me from this past year, it's hard to strip a dish from the context and the company with which it was consumed. So much of the pleasure of dining is derived by the experience and occasion -- the ambiance of the restaurant, the hospitality of the staff, and, perhaps most significantly, the dynamic with one's dining companions. 

Even after seven or so years of said occupancy in the industry's periphery, I'm still amazed at food's ability to connect people who might not normally be, well, connected. It breaks down geographic, political, and ethnic barriers, and has the power to spawn and nurture friendships… even inspire love.

For, you know, people who are not me.

So, while 2015 didn't bring triple red heart emojis, it did illicit rib-bruising laughter and strengthened and built new relationships with the incredible people who make up the fiber of the food community in Los Angeles. It took me around the country to dining meccas like Chicago, New York, Portland, and San Francisco. And it brought these transcendent ten dishes into my orbit… and, now, perhaps yours.

Rugbrod bread and salted butter at Esters Wine Shop and Bar in Santa Monica
The product of a partnership between Los Angeles culinary royalty Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, and Rustic Canyon restaurant’s wine director, Kathryn Coker, and her husband, Tug, Esters is quite literally a labor born out of love. It's easy to be dazzled by the high-vaulted ceilings and eggshell blue walls of the interior, or the twinkling lights strung over the Instagram-friendly tile tables that line the narrow, street-facing patio, but the chic space doesn't rest on style alone to convert the throngs of Westsiders who have made it their home away from home since Esters' opening this summer. There is Coker's thoughtfully curated wine selection, of course, but that too would be rendered incomplete without the foil of Chef Jeremy Fox's succinct menu of snacks, charcuterie and cheese supplemented with bread sourced from sister property Milo & Olive. While appraising words have certainly been said about the grilled cheese, kouign amann cheese twists and lavender almonds, during a spontaneous mid-week happy hour with friends this past December, it was a simple loaf of freshly baked rugbrod bread with salted butter that captivated my full attention. With the companionship of a glass of something Italian and red (again, the bread had captivated my FULL attention), and the companionship of my fellow partners in carb crime, it was the perfect weeknight dinner. 1314 7th St, Santa Monica, CA 90405, ((310) 899-6900 

Kimchi fried rice at Baroo in Hollywood
On a recent visit to the signless East Hollywood strip mall prototypical "hole-in-the-wall," my party and I tried to pinpoint when it was that Baroo burst onto the radar and into the hearts of LA's foodarazzi. My initial introduction was via a food editor who had declared it a must-try when we met for drinks this past October at another new LA gem, Everson Royce Bar, and soon after our exchange, it seemed that the chorus of critical acclaim was echoed everywhere by everyone.

It was with much anticipation that I finally visited Owner and Chef Kwang Uh's "free-style experimental kitchen" for lunch with a friend the last week of 2015 (followed by a subsequent return to finish sampling the menu three days later). It would be easy for me to stop here with a declaration that the 16-seat restaurant and oft-mentioned kimchi fried rice bowl are "worthy of the hype," but to do so would be to strip Uh's passion project and the dish of its soul, and underestimate the potential for Baroo's longevity within our community's (and the greater public's) imagination.

It, the soul, was immediately perceptible in the meticulously crafted rice bowl featuring pineapple fermented kimchi, amira basmati rice, a 63 degree sous vide egg, gremolata, pineapple jalapeno salsa, purple potato chips, roasted seaweed, toasted buckwheat and quinoa, and micro greens that each appear to have been prepared with individualized attention in a way that mere mortals would be loath to attempt in a home kitchen. Baroo is the reason we, as a collective body, go out to eat. Not just for the sensory appeal nor the communal experience of sharing a meal, but for the delight inherent in discovering something utterly surprising -- whether it be a bracing house elderflower kombucha, an artistically plated tangle of handmade celeriac pasta noodles dusted with celery ash, or a curl of pickled onion that is oh-so-subtly fragranced with rose. 5706 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038, (323) 819-4344 

Chocolate Rye Pie at Odys + Penelope in Mid-City
Another of my favorite new restaurants of the year, husband and wife team Quinn and Karen Hatfield's self-described "churrasco and grill" paradoxically won me over with items that never even came into contact with the advertised open grill or wood-fired smoker. First, a farmer's market salad (pictured) that mesmerized with not only the breadth of raw and roasted vegetables tucked within the pile of just-plucked lettuce leaves and fresh herbs, but the unexpected smear of pepita butter unceremonious painted across the plate as though an afterthought. (It was far from an afterthought.) Then there was a creamy cauliflower and millet risotto-esque side, hidden near the bottom of the menu and humbly scooped into a small cereal-sized bowl with a verdant walnut pesto. Finally, the piece de resistance, Karen Hatfield's chocolate rye pie -- a hauntingly complex iteration of chess pie whimsically presented with salted Spanish peanuts and malted ice cream. The dessert could very well teeter on the edge of too sweet, too rich territory, but the assertive tang of the, dare I say, "wholesome," rye crust brought the pie straight into the realm of the sublime…and straight into the confines of this list. 127 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036, (323) 939-1033

Almond Apple Croissant at b. patisserie in San Francisco
This croissant, secured during a spontaneous 24-hour trip to San Francisco, was, like the trip itself, not supposed to happen. I had visited the fanciful Parisian-style bakery for Pastry Chef Belinda Leong's prized kouign amann, but couldn't resist the behemoth American proportioned pastry, clearly the product of a well-conceived, cross-pollination between a croissant and slice of apple pie. I obtained the multi-layered monstrosity right before I hopped in my car to begin the six-hour drive back to Los Angeles, and made it a heroic 2 hours and 33 minutes before tearing into it, fully intending to save the second half for later. Suffice it to say, later never happened. 2821 California St, San Francisco, CA 94115, (415) 440-1700

Brûléed oatmeal at Gravy in Portland
Weekend brunch in Portland is a blood sport. You wake up at an unseemly hour for a Saturday or Sunday when one is supposed to be lazying about drinking way too much coffee in a pair of sweat pants that have seen better decades, and then proceed to wait an hour outside in the probable rain for a small square of table real estate that will be turned faster than a jug of milk left out in the August sun.

Given said obstacles, you would think that a visit to a brunching hot spot like Gravy in Portland's North quadrant would inspire at least one order boasting the restaurant's namesake dish, or, barring that, something similarly over-the-top to justify the time invested in the mid-day meal. It would not follow that you would soldier through exhaustion, inclement weather and personal space invasion for… oatmeal. Unless of course it's steel-cut oatmeal baked in a ramekin over a slurry of mixed berries until the mass of nubby grains are coaxed into a consistency not unlike that of bread pudding. And just when you think there is nothing that could possibly improve upon the gold standard by which all other oatmeals will henceforth be compared, the good folks at Gravy go ahead and brûlée the top with sugar. This, my friends, is oatmeal on steroids. 3957 N Mississippi Ave, Portland, OR 97227, (503) 287-8800

Chicken wings at Pok Pok in Portland
If you are walking by Pok Pok's flagship restaurant on SE Division Street when there is less than a 20 minute wait for a table, you stop. Even if it's raining (it will be), even if you've just eaten half your weight in oatmeal on steroids from Gravy, and even if you have no plans to order anything more than the chicken wings and a pomegranate drinking vinegar. By this juncture in Pok Pok's esteemed history, Chef Andy Ricker's signature chicken wings need no further introduction, but lest you think I'm being negligent in my lack of description, I'll simply say that they are a sticky, sweet, spicy edible addiction wholly worthy of their iconic status. 3226 SE Division St, Portland, OR 97202, (503) 232-1387

Passionfruit Ice Box Cake at Elysian in Atwater Village
Scheduled for the day after I got home from an indulgent 48-hours in Portland (See: Brûléed oatmeal, chicken wings), my Sunday brunch at the multi-use event and sometimes restaurant space in Atwater Village was meant to be a relatively redemptive meal. I'd already zeroed in on a brown rice and lentil bowl with accompaniments that read like an ode to a local farmer's market, and had no plans for further nourishment outside of a stern cup of English breakfast tea. Naturally, all my intentions to exhibit self-restraint were eradicated when a friend placed an order for a slice of Pastry Chef Sarah Lange's passionfruit ice box cake. I ate more of the towering dessert with its transfixing layers of tart ice cream, toasted meringue and delicate crumb crust, than anyone else at the table -- including Los Angeles' pre-eminent authority on sweets who, as it turns out, found it similarly irresistible. 2806 Clearwater St, Los Angeles, CA 90039, (323) 522-6625 

Whitefish salad bagel at Sadelle's in New York
I went to Sadelle's, the new Soho hot spot and darling of the New York food media, at the recommendation of my (and many Angelenos') most trusted resource for restaurants and bakeries. While the visuals most commonly associated with the brunching and dining destination are the batons of glossy-skinned bagels, immaculate smoked fish towers, and co-owner and baker Melissa Weller's Van Gogh-esque chocolate babka, the bagel sandwich game here is not to be overlooked.

The whitefish salad poppyseed bagel I ordered at the to-go counter for a casual breakfast was both refined and revelatory -- the meaty salad finding textural juxtaposition from a smattering of plump capers and precise slices of tomato, cucumber and onion. It was so unreasonably good I woke up early the next morning to get one more before leaving to catch my flight back to LA. This alone would be reason enough to include Sadelle's in this list, but the experience was only further heightened by the hospitality of the staff and the bloke who, after recognizing me, threw in four exquisitely cinnamon-scented sticky buns for my trek home. I triple heart emoji New York. 463 W Broadway, New York, NY 10012, (212) 776-4926 

Burger at Au Cheval in Chicago
Before I proceed any further, I must provide full disclosure: This is the only burger I ate in 2015. While this revelation might seemingly strip me of all credibility, by my approximation, my lack of proclivity toward burgers only corroborates its inclusion here. The takeaway? If I'm selecting a burger as one of my favorite bites of the year over spaghetti carbonara, ice cream or some form of avocado toast, it must be superlative. And is it ever. The two four-ounce, griddled patties are a study in why char is an essential component of any burger, and the restrained construction – melted cheddar cheese, dijonnaise and a few whisps of housemade dill pickles – punctuates the point that high-quality ingredients have no need for window dressing when treated with a deft hand. The burger is a taste of childhood, reconfigured for an adult palate. Even an adult palate that is more accustomed to quinoa and kale salads. (It is worth noting here that for those who share my predilections, the raw shaved vegetable salad with pungent nubs of blue cheese is also not to be missed.) 800 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60607, (312) 929-4580

Fig lasagna at Maude in Beverly Hills
It was, as the cliche dictates, a once in a lifetime opportunity – not only because of the challenge involved with securing a reservation at Curtis Stone's seminal 25-seat restaurant in Beverly Hills, but because the featured tasting menu of the month, a tribute to figs, would never be available again. So, when I received a last minute invitation to join two friends for dinner at Maude on a Saturday evening this past August, I immediately scrapped my plans to eat braised kale and watch "Gilmore Girls" re-runs at home.

What would follow would be one of the most memorable and unique meals of 2015. From the service, both warm and professional, to the charming plating of the chorus of courses that brought to mind that of a more understated Eleven Madison Park, to the fluidity of the comprehensive dining experience, there was a palpable feeling within the four walls of the restaurant that we were all in on something special. For the three hours that my party spent at the chef's counter observing the synchronized dance taking place in the open kitchen, the world outside ceased to exist. There was only the moment. And a fig lasagna squatting under a lacquer of brûléed cheese that would transcend all other moments there within. (My grainy, dark photo will never do it the justice it deserves.) 212 S Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, (310) 859-3418

Honorable mentions: The bread/toast at The Mill in San Francisco (pictured at top); the avocado toast situation at Lodge Bread in Culver City (pictured above - are you sensing a theme?); the quintessential meatballs with ricotta at Jon & Vinny's; the perfect iteration of spaghetti carbonara at Maialino in New York; the greenmarket salad with baby lettuce and green goddess dressing at Charlie Bird in the Village; the rustic red cabbage salad with delicata squash, pepitas and apple butter vinaigrette at Ned Ludd in Portland; the carrot hummus with warm flatbread at Lincoln in Portland (one of my favorite meals of 2015 - the hospitality!); the salmon with pea puree at Blackbird in Chicago; the vanilla bean yeast doughnut at Doughnut Plant in Chicago; the vegetable caldo soup at Xoco (Chicago, again!); and many MANY things and ice cream I ate at clients that I can't honorably mention here because it wouldn't, well, be honorable to do so.

And, now, for funsies, my 2016 (LA) Restaurant Bucket List: Alimento, Arthur J., Broken Spanish/B.S. Taqueria (clam lardo taco!), Dune, Hachet Hall, Little Sister Downtown, Lodge Bread for Sunday night pizza (check, as of tonight!), Madcapra, Otium, Redbird, Rose Cafe (check, as of yesterday!), Taco Maria, Taco Nazo (according to my NYE Uber driver, their fish tacos are serious business), Viviane, and many many more that I'm forgetting now because, tired.  


Gastronomer said...

June would also declare Sadelle's white fish one of her best bites of 2015!

Mariz Denver said...

Thanks for the roundup. Love all of these. I will try to make them all.

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